Toronto Pop Chronicles: A riot of our own
In first of new column series, Geoff Pevere looks back at the Ontario Place riot of 1980 and its unhappy legacy.
http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/20 ... r_own.html
Frankie Venom of Teenage Head at Ontario Place on June 2, 1980, a date that will live in local-punk infamy. (Grant Slater on keys)
By: Geoff Pevere Entertainment Columnist, Published on Fri Jun 10 2011
One of Toronto's most persistent blind spots is the celebration of its pop culture history. Yet, as blurred as the record may be, the city's contribution to the international art and entertainment scene has been profound. In music, movies, comedy, TV and comic art, Toronto has been a vital centre for the new, the innovative and the transformative. The Toronto Pop Culture Chronicles will attempt to set some of this record straight. Starting this week, and every two weeks in the coming months, Geoff Pevere will take a fresh look at some of this city's key moments in pop culture history. First up: The Ontario Place “Punk Rock Riot” of 1980.
As it likes to on notorious days, the sun shone brilliantly over the Ontario Place Forum before all hell broke loose. Indeed, when you ask two of the headline performers about that day in June, 1980, both Teenage Head guitarist Gordie Lewis and Segarini Band leader Bob Segarini, it’s the first thing they mention.
The second thing they noticed was the people: hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them, all arriving hours early for a free concert showcasing were then two of the city’s most popular and promising local acts. Segarini, a polished pure pop act headed by a transplanted Californian who’d shared staged with the Doors, the Airplane and the Grateful Dead; and Teenage Head, the blisteringly energetic quarter of Hamilton high-school buddies quartet who delivered crazily danceable 2.5 minute rock rave-ups with a hard-partying punk wallop.
Arriving about four hours before the show, Lewis hopped off a streetcar at Exhibition Gates. He looked around. He had his guitar with him, and he was momentarily puzzled. “What are all these people doing here?” he wondered.
Then it clicked. They were here for the concert, and they were not going to miss it. Some of them had already seen the Head in one of the hundreds of local club, pub, gymnasium and parking lot gigs they’d given in the previous few years, and more — many, many more — were there because the band’s second album, Frantic City, was getting generous local airplay on a multitude of local stations: Q-107, CFNY, CHUM-AM and FM. Lewis was delighted, he instantly knew it was going to be the biggest gig the band had ever played, and that would bode brilliantly for the band’s impending departure for a series of showcase dates in the punk make-or-break market of NYC. He made his way through the crowds to the underground dressing room.
Segarini arrived around the same time. When he looked out at the rolling waves of fans, his amazement quickly clicked to vindicated joy. As an avid advocate of the emergent punk and new wave scene in Toronto, Segarini was tired of trying to tune the tin ears of the local music establishment into the sheer vitality and excitement of bands like Teenage Head. So Ontario Place that day looked like the reckoning: by their sheer numbers, the fans would speak and the suits would listen.
The show began around 7:30 pm. When Segarini’s band hit the stage, the Forum Amphitheatre was an undulating mass of humanity. From the stage, Segarini and the band thought they could hear booing, which prompted the drummer to pump the beat so quickly, “We did a forty-five minute set in thirty minutes.”
A seasoned vet, Segarini didn’t let the booing bother him. He figured it was probably the customary fate of the act that opens for a hotly anticipated headliner, and he was proud that Teenage Head – among his under-appreciated local heroes – were clearly getting their moment of glory. Segarini finished and the band left the stage.
He remembers seeing Head lead singer Frankie Venom bolt past his dressing room, a sign the show was about to start.
Gord Lewis was close behind, hit the stage and made some noise with the guitar he’d brought on the TTC. As Segarini remembers, the crowd was “Electric. Just electric.”
It didn’t take long before the Head’s repertoire of two-minute sonic-boom pop jolts had its effect. Not the desired one under the circumstances perhaps, but an effect nevertheless: people starting jumping the stage, and roadies – there was no official security that day – started running interference between the band and the jumpers.
Because they’d been playing so often for so long, Lewis remembers the Head being as tight as they’ve ever been. Frankie was playing the crowd like a maestro, and it felt real god. Then it got scary.
Close to the end of the set, the fan tsunami hit. The members of Teenage Head all looked at one another and, without any prior deliberation or calculation aforethought, did the only reasonable thing they thought possible under the circumstances: ran like hell. Lewis was holding his guitar extra-tight because he’d only just re-acquired it from a fan who’d tried to steal it and head for the hills.
“Oh yeah,” the ran all right, Segarini recollected. “They ran right past me. Then we ran too.”
The next day, Gord Lewis awoke to the headlines. “It was the first time I had any idea what had gone on,” he said. He’d read that the Ontario Place staff had attempted to close the gates to the Forum to keep any more people from streaming in, and that some of those people, understandably miffed at being denied entry to a free and open concert, had gone a little berserk. Cops had been called, glass had been broken, beer had been spilled, and a term had entered the local pop culture mythology: Punk Rock Riot.
Years later, a friend of Segarini’s got hold of a cassette recording taken of his band that night. It was the first time Segarini ever heard the set, and two things struck him: “We were playing faster than the Ramones,” he said. “And there was no booing. None. Now I realize what we heard was the hubbub outside.”
The legacy of that night was not as sunny as Lewis or Segarini had hoped. Ontario place banned ‘hard rock’ music from its grassy premises for years. Instead of transcending its unkempt thug image, the local punk scene was only more tightly wrapped in it, and especially by the music establishment that had never bothered to properly understand it in the first place.
More than anything, that’s what miffed Segarini about the incident. “I lay the blame totally and squarely on the organizers,” he said to me 31 years later, “because they didn’t have the respect or the intelligence to take this music or its fans seriously. They didn’t get it, they never got it, and never tried to get it.”
In the next year, Segarini’s band would split up. Teenage Head played on, but the bad luck of that night seemed to have some strange karmic sticking power: a couple of months after that Lewis broke his back in a car accident that pre-empted the Head’s much-anticipated showcase performances in New York, and by the time he was ready to play again the moment and the momentum was lost.
Punk was already entering the realm of the historical around the world, but locally it was usually filed under another word. When I went seeking archive photos for this column, I only found one of the band’s performance that night in a folder labelled ‘Teenage Head.’ In the folder marked ‘Ontario Riots’ however, I found a whole bunch
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